Studs Terkel, Master Storyteller and Inspiration of Stage Works, Dies at 96

Obituaries   Studs Terkel, Master Storyteller and Inspiration of Stage Works, Dies at 96
Studs Terkel, the journalist and radio host who used interviews with ordinary people to explore some of the central tenets of the American character, died Friday at home in his beloved native city, Chicago. He was 96.

Mr. Terkel's characteristics as an interviewer separated him from most of his fellow journalists. He was not cynical, but remained optimistic about the human character. He never grew jaded, but remained wildly, even comically enthusiastic about every person he encountered. And his main interest was not in the Big Story that would grab headlines, but in unveiling wider truths about broader concerns such as race relations and why people work.

His exhaustive interviews resulted in a series of acclaimed, best-selling books. "Division Street: America," his first success, published in 1966, was about the social conflicts that roiled in urban America in the 1960s. "Hard Times" (1970) explored people's experiences during the Great Depression. "Working" (1974) asked people why they did what they did for a living, whether they enjoyed it, and what role it played in their lives. "The Good War," his oral history of World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1985.

Other books included "Talking to Myself," a memoir (1977); "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession" (1992) and "Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It" (1995).

Two of his books were adapted into stage works. Working, with music by a wide variety of composers, including Stephen Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, James Taylor and Mary Rodgers, was a collection of vignettes with people singing about their daily labors. It had a short run of 24 performances on Broadway, but has had a long life in regional theatres. Its book and score were nominated for Tony Awards. In 1999 Working was updated with additional material about new kinds of workers and with two new songs.

Two years later, Broadway saw The American Clock. The Arthur Miller play, a collection of short scenes featuring many characters and centered on one family, was inspired by Hard Times. It ran 12 performances. In 2004 Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, presented the world premiere musical, Studs Terkel's "The Good War," based on Terkel's book of the same name. It was written by David H. Bell and Craig Carnelia, and the score was made up of new arrangements of classic 1940s songs.

His daily Chicago-based radio show was first broadcast on WFMT in 1958. Mr. Terkel, who radiated a genial blue-collar authenticity that seemed to free his subjects of their natural reticence and inhibitions, frequently sang the praises of the Second City, even though he was not a native son. He was born Louis Terkel in the Bronx on May 16, 1912, the third son of Samuel Terkel, a tailor, and the former Anna Finkel. The family moved to Chicago in 1923. He took the name Studs from "Studs Lonigan," the title character in James T. Farrell's novel.

He had early ambitions to be an actor. He appeared in Waiting for Lefty at the Chicago Repertory Group, and performed in soap operas like "Ma Perkins" and "Road of Life." He also wrote scripts for WGN. After World War II, he was given his own radio show, called "The Wax Museum," on WENR. In 1950, he was the star and host of an early Chicago variety show called "Stud's Place," in which he posed as the owner of a barbeque place who was merely passing the time of day with his guests. He certainly looked the part. Short, with a doughy, smiling faced and wildly awry white hair, he had the bearing and personality of a bartender or garrulous traveling salesman. When telling a story, his eyes would widen with childlike enthusiasm and his soft, husky voice — made for radio — would fill with drama.

"Stud's Place" was canceled in 1952, the victim of McCarthyism; Mr. Terkel was a life-long liberal. Not able to work in radio, he returned to the theatre, acting in a national tour of Detective Story. Other plays followed. Soon after, WFMT hired him; he would stay there for the next 45 years.

In 1980 Mr. Terkel won a Peabody Award for excellence in journalism. In 1997 Mr. Terkel received the National Book Foundation Medal for contributions to American letters.

In 1939 he married Ida Goldberg, a social worker. She died in 1999. The couple had one son, Dan Terkell, who changed the spelling of his surname, and survived his father.

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